Authors: Y. S. Lee
To H, our constant delight, and to N, who shares it all
Saturday, 13 October 1860
The streets of London
t was a miserable day for a walk: sleety, frigid, dark. Nevertheless, Mary Quinn and James Easton, Private Detectives, were out for a ramble about Bloomsbury, bundled against the penetrating drizzle, straining to distinguish people from lampposts in the dense fog that swamped the streets. Mary’s skirts were soaked to the knee and much heavier than when she’d first set out. Their boots were thick with mud.
Mary smiled up at James, squeezing his elbow. “Isn’t this delightful?”
He laughed. “Unalloyed bliss, apart from the rain, the wind and the bitter cold. Can you still feel your fingertips?”
She wiggled them experimentally. “A little. Could you tilt the umbrella towards me, please? It’s dripping on my shoulder.” James complied and they paced on, passing a sodden, shivering boy wielding a broomstick taller than he was. “Wait a moment, James.” But James was already turning back, pressing a coin into the crossing-sweeper’s unresisting palm. He murmured something and gave the child a gentle pat on the shoulder.
Mary watched the boy stumble away, a slight figure swallowed by the dark smog. She shuddered. It was like a heavy-handed morality play, to which there could be only one conclusion.
James returned, offering his arm once more. “Where were we?”
“You were complaining about the weather. Not for the first time.” She smiled at him again, teasing this time. “Are you quite certain you don’t want to come up to my flat for tea and toast and scandal?” As her future husband, James wanted their marriage to be respectable. It wasn’t for his sake, particularly, although she suspected he cared about reputation more than he would acknowledge. No, it was for Mary: in order to bury her past and allow her a fresh start, they had agreed to behave with Utter Propriety. No matter how hypocritical and inconvenient the conventions of etiquette, it was worth observing them for the social invisibility it would afford their marriage. These cold and uncomfortable walks about town were a perfect example of their new courtship: how else could an unmarried lady and gentleman hold a truly private conversation, unchaperoned and uninterrupted? James’s logic was inarguable. And yet, after twenty years of freedom, Mary desperately resented these superficial social restrictions. Was this the moment to propose her little escapade?
His reply wiped all thought of it from her mind. “I’d love to. Let’s just pop into the next church and get married first.”
She puffed with amusement and saw her breath in the air. “Of course you’ve a marriage licence in your pocket.”
“Do you doubt it?”
“I’d no idea you were on such intimate terms with the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
“There are common licences, you know. One can be obtained from any vicar.”
She halted and stared up into his dark eyes. They glinted with mockery, and something else, too: a challenge. Her mouth dried. “A–are you – mocking me?”
“I’m asking you to declare yourself. We could be married within the hour, if you so chose.” His expression was neutral, his tone maddeningly even. He might have been offering her his seat on the omnibus.
She was suddenly at the edge of a precipice, fascinated and terrified in equal measure. Of course she wanted to marry James … someday. But now? Here? “I–I don’t know what to say,” she confessed, unable to meet his gaze.
“That is an answer in itself.” He sounded calm, but there was no missing the undercurrent of hurt in his voice.
She spun to face him fully, taking both his hands in hers. “I’m sorry, James. I love you, truly. And I want to marry you.”
“But not yet.”
“I’m just learning a whole new way of being. Can you picture yourself in my place?” Mary closed her eyes briefly, knowing that James certainly tried. He was deeply sympathetic to the horrors of her childhood on the streets, her life as a juvenile housebreaker, her unexpected escape from the death sentence. She’d never been free to explain exactly how she’d been rescued by the Agency, but he knew enough. “After a childhood such as mine, I’m suddenly a woman of means. I can choose what to do with my days. I answer to nobody. Can you see why I might want a little more time for such selfish liberty? This is my first taste of true independence; the closest I’ll ever come to perfect freedom.” She paused. “It
selfish, I have no illusions that it’s anything else. But it’s a giddy, dizzying sort of freedom, and I want more time to explore it.”
After a few moments he squeezed her fingers. “I think I do understand.” She felt limp with relief. “It’s too easy for me to forget. I answer only to George, and that’s as a business partner. He may also be my brother, but I am very much my own man.”
She smiled. “That you are. And you’ve chosen a wilful, stubborn, scandal-ridden disgrace of a fiancée.”
“Only the best for me.”
“James.” Mary pulled him close. Too close, for perfect propriety. “Thank you.”
His finger glided against the curve of her cheek. “I can’t say ‘my pleasure’.”
She smiled crookedly. “I do want to belong to you one day. And to claim you as my own, as well.”
“I very much look forward to being claimed.” He glanced around furtively, then dipped his head to hers, kissing her – all too briefly – on the lips. “Perhaps I’ll have your name tattooed on my arm so there’s no doubt as to whom I belong,” he said, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow and resuming their steady walking pace. “What would you say to your initials in Gothic letters, surrounded by scrolls and hearts?”
“No need,” she said with a laugh. “Once you’re mine, I won’t permit you to forget it.”
They walked on in a daze, utterly distracted by each other and by visions of their future. It wasn’t until they heard church bells ringing the hour – it was already eleven – that Mary returned to the present. “Ought we to talk business?” she suggested with a slight sigh.
“Sadly, yes. What news of ailing Mr Colfax?” It was the last – and, admittedly, only second – item on their list of current cases.
“I’m afraid it’s bad: I’ve traced the purchase of three substantial amounts of arsenic over the past year directly to his wife.”
James whistled. “I thought it was supposed to be difficult to buy arsenic now. There was all that administrative reform after the Bradford tragedy.” Less than two years earlier there had been an accidental mass poisoning in the north, when arsenic was mistakenly included in a batch of peppermint sweets.
“In theory, yes. But all one need do is tell the chemist what it’s wanted for – everybody in the world wants it to kill rats – and sign the ledger.”
“Did she sign in her own name each time?”
“For the first lot, yes, which makes me wonder if the idea only came to her after the fact. But for the second and third purchases, which are more recent, she took care to use a false name and address. I’m certain it’s her, though. Not only does the handwriting match, but the chemists – she used a different shop each time – remembered her and described her with accuracy.”
“We still don’t know exactly how she’s doing it,” said Mary. “She’s not suffering from any sort of digestive upset, and neither are the domestics. It must be in something he alone consumes. Dissolved in the whisky, maybe, or perhaps he’s the only one who likes sugar in his coffee.”
“I’ll ask him to consider what it might be,” said James. As the male partner, he was also the public face of their fledgling detective firm – a concession to convention that seldom failed to irk Mary, if she dwelt upon it. “And perhaps he ought to take a short holiday. It would be useful to confirm that he doesn’t suffer these digestive horrors when he’s on his own; only when dear Mrs Colfax presides over the menu.”
Mary nodded. “In the meantime, I doubt Mrs Colfax is a threat to anybody but that very heavily insured husband of hers.”
They plodded on, contemplating the faithlessness of modern love and marriage. Their client had been a frail and rather elderly bridegroom for three years – a doting husband until, after too many sudden and agonizing gastric attacks, he had slowly begun to suspect the worst. Before their marriage, Mrs Colfax had been a lively young widow, handsome and sociable and absolutely penniless. Their marriage was just the sort of thing Mary had been taught to eschew at the unconventional Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. The thing was, she thought, that with just a little more patience, the fortune would pass legally to Mrs Colfax. Yet she seemed reluctant to wait for it. Money had a way of spoiling people’s judgement.
Had it done the same to her? Mary thought half-guiltily of her own fortune, the gift of a grateful and generous Queen Victoria after Mary had averted an attempt on her life. That lump of capital, while a tiny sum to the Queen, had changed Mary’s life entirely. It had made her a woman of some means, a person with the power to shape her own future. It would also mark her as a potential target for small-time fortune-hunters if word of her independence got out. Of course, when she married James, her money would become his property…
“What are you brooding about?” asked James. “You’re not planning to poison me with arsenic, are you?”
That raised a smile. “If anyone’s buying arsenic, it’s your precious housekeeper.”
James grinned. “I thought Mrs V. had thawed towards you a bit.”
bit. You know, she might be the main impediment to our marriage.”
He shivered dramatically. “Absurd. The real impediment is that I’ll be a solid block of ice before you give me a definitive yes.”
“So much whinging!” Mary laughed. “Are you really about to collapse from the cold? We could take a turn about the museum now that our confidential business is concluded.”
“I wish we could,” said James, “but I’ve got to get back to the site. It’s payday for the men and I don’t like to be late. Next time, certainly. Or better yet, we’ll end in a coffee-house.”
They turned and walked briskly towards Mary’s small flat in Burton Crescent, picking their way carefully through the muck churned up by passing horses and carts. As always, James waited for her to extract her door key, then unlocked the front door and returned the key to Mary’s upturned palm.
This was the moment. She had to speak now. She tilted her face up to his and said, “I’ve a proposal to put to you.”
James batted his eyelashes and spoke in a quavering falsetto. “Darling, I thought you’d never ask.”
“You may regret saying that when you hear just what it is.”
“Is it so very dull?”
“Quite the reverse. Not to mention thoroughly unladylike and far from respectable.”
“We’ve waded through sewers, dangled from a bell-tower and stumbled out of a burning building together. Can you top that?”
“Possibly.” Mary fumbled in her reticule and produced a torn half-sheet of paper. “I found this yesterday.”
“This” was a handbill for “Mr Ching, a Chinese pugilist of noble extraction, closely related by blood to the Chinese Emperor”, who challenged “the sportsmen of England, Britannia’s athletes, all of Her Majesty’s skilled and subtlest fighters, to best him in an unarmed fight”, with the winner to receive a prize-purse of one pound. For the semi-literate, there was even an illustration of a determined-looking Chinese man, wearing loose robes and facing the reader in a fighting stance.
Curiosity lit James’s dark eyes. “‘Mr Ching claims the superiority of Chinese hand-and-foot fighting,’” he read, “‘and promises ocular proof of such. Not only will Mr Ching fight: he will take on all who present themselves.’ Are you planning to challenge the distinguished Mr Ching, Mary?”
“No,” she admitted. “But I would dearly love to see him fight.”
James’s brows drew together in a frown. “The address is in Leicester Square. ‘Hazardous’ doesn’t begin to describe the place…”
“Hear me out,” she said quickly. “The notice made me think of my father; after I saw it, I suddenly remembered watching him practise these very complicated chains of hand and foot movements when I was a child. He claimed that when used at speed they were more effective than most weapons. He promised to teach me, when I grew older.” She paused. “Then, of course, he disappeared.”
“I’ve heard of such a style of fighting,” allowed James. “But setting aside questions of safety and propriety for the time being, how will seeing this Mr Ching affect you, do you think? Is it wise to revisit this sort of memory?”
“I’ve never claimed to be wise,” said Mary. “And I’ve no idea what the effect might be. Quite likely, it will be a crashing disappointment…”